You don’t hear the old mantra quite so often these days “Arsène knows.” And so he does. The trouble is that everyone else seems to have decided they know better.
Until Christmas Arsène Wenger had to listen to the cognoscenti telling him that his team was too brittle, too effeminate, that he had to go to market and buy himself some brawn. But Arsène knew otherwise. Instead the Arsenal manager broke the club transfer record on Andrei Arshavin – all 5ft 7in of him, a leprechaun among footballers. By tucking his shirt into his shorts for his debut on Saturday, Arshavin not only invited scepticism about that infamous fashion diploma of his, but very nearly obscured his squad number as well.
Funnily enough, nobody was talking about Wenger’s defence afterwards. How could they, when Kolo Touré and William Gallas are keeping Johan Djourou – precisely the sort of player everyone had been imploring Wenger to find elsewhere – on the bench? Instead, after a third consecutive league stalemate, Wenger was being told that his team’s abiding problem is a lack of invention. It is difficult to know how he was supposed to respond. He could hardly say: “I know.” That is for others to decide. But yes, Arsène knows, all right. He must do. Otherwise what was that little Russian guy doing out there?
Arshavin was given just over an hour until the petrol ran dry, but permitted no doubt that Wenger, in finally spending, has spent exceptionally well. His feline feints prised open the most claustrophobic positions, and he had nearly scored with either foot within 15 minutes.
Sunderland were certainly contributing at that stage, but poured concrete into every gap after the interval. Ricky Sbragia, their manager, acknowledged he would not have got away with it against a more clinical side. Marton Fulop excelled in goal, but Arsenal lacked composure when the opportunities did come.
Their fans were livid by the end. At this rate, they sensed, Arsenal will only qualify for the Champions’ League next year by winning the final in Rome in May. And their guests from that city tomorrow have a pretty powerful incentive to be there instead.
This was long derided as an ornamental team – a means without ends. Remarkably, in restoring stability during midwinter, they have now become ponderous, scoring only four goals in their past seven league starts at home. Wenger, creditably, did not seek refuge in the negativity of their visitors.
“We have to learn to cope with that,” he admitted. “I’m not critical of Sunderland. They give us a problem, we have to be good enough to deal with it. It’s down to us to win the game.
“In the first part of the season, we conceded too many goals. In the second, we don’t concede any more, but don’t score. So in the final part the challenge is to find a balance.”
Since Arshavin should retrieve peak fitness in tandem with Cesc Fabregas, Theo Walcott and Eduardo da Silva, Arsenal’s present indignities may not last into the spring – but only if the players themselves keep the faith. Perhaps that was the biggest concern about their finishing here.
It remains easy to share the consensus that Arsenal lack a bedrock in the mould of Spain’s Marcos Senna, who finally extinguished Arshavin’s fires at the European Championship last summer. Perhaps Wenger might consider trying Touré as a midfield base, ahead of Gallas and Djourou? But there you have it. Yet another genius who thinks he knows better.
Arsenal (4-4-2): Almunia; Sagna, Gallas, Touré , Clichy (Gibbs, 85); Nasri, Denilson, Song (Eboué, 78), Arshavin (Vela, 63); Bendtner, Van Persie. Substitutes not used: Fabianski (gk), Ramsey, Djourou, Merida.
Sunderland (4-5-1): Fulop; Ben-Haim, Ferdinand, Collins, McCartney; Malbranque, Whitehead, Tainio (Leadbitter, 76), Richardson, Reid (Murphy, 78); Jones (Edwards, 88). Substitutes not used: Gordon (gk), Davenport, Healy, McShane.
Referee: A Wiley (Staffordshire).
Booked: Arsenal Nasri, Clichy; Sunderland Richardson, McCartney.
Man of the match: Ferdinand.